Recently I shared a video on FB that got me thinking about reasons why someone might decide positive training “didn’t work.” As a trainer, I will admit, that statement makes me crazy. My first thought is usually something like then you’re doing it wrong. But as I was re-watching the video, I thought about how easy it could be for someone to try a version of positive training, not get results, and then give up.
Here’s the video, taken a couple weeks ago at the shelter where I volunteer. In it, I was getting to know Ash, a 6 month-old lab mix puppy. In the hope of getting some footage to advertise the shelter’s training program for its canine residents, my friend Maria (kennel tech and enrichment coordinator at the shelter) was recording our session. She asked me to explain what I was doing to teach Ash to sit. I wasn’t expecting the question, so my reply was off the cuff. But how hard could it be to explain teaching a dog to sit? It’s just sit, right?
But rewatching this video I realized that there is more going on than my answers to Maria’s questions explain.
At 00:22, Maria asks me what sound like pretty straightforward questions—could I explain when I click? when I treat deliver? and why I toss a treat? My response tells part of the story:
I click when his rear end hits the ground.
If he doesn’t do it on his own, I give him a hint.
And I toss the treat to reset him.
If you’re new to positive training, you might reasonably ask why? in response to each of those statements. Or you might not think to ask why and instead just try what you observed in the video. But your dog might not respond the way Ash does, and so what you see in the video might not work, and you might then reasonably conclude that positive training doesn’t get results.
So, if you are new or otherwise wondering why, here’s a fuller explanation than offered in the video.
Why click when his rear end hits the ground? I’m using the click sound paired with something yummy to mark the behavior of bum-on-ground. Dogs, like humans, learn by association. So Ash is learning, first, that click = something good (i.e., the food reinforcer). And, after enough reps where sit is followed by the click which is followed immediately by food, to associate sitting with something good. Could I teach him to sit without a clicker? Yep. In that case, I would pick a word to pair with the reinforcer (e.g., super!). So why use a clicker? A clicker is not required to teach this behavior, or for positive training more generally. There are actually a lot of reasons positive trainers often use clickers, but that topic could be the subject of a separate post. I’m using one here because the sound of the click is distinctive—moreso than my voice. Notice that I am talking a lot in the video, but he’s tuning out most of it? The click stands out as a unique noise.
Why not say sit and push his rear end down? Because he could learn that the cue for sit is my hand on his rear end, or the verbal cue “sit” + my hand. I think it’s clearer for the dog if my hand isn’t involved at all. Plus, dogs (again like humans) have what is called an opposition reflex. If I push on his back end, he’s likely to push up instead of sitting down. (ETA: Since publishing this post, eileenanddogs has published this very interesting post on why “opposition reflex” is actually a problematic term.) Last for a young puppy like Ash, a lot of pushy, handsy behavior from me might seem like an invitation to play and wrestle rather than sit.
Why give him a hint? Like a lot of positive trainers, I will try to capture or lure a behavior. Capturing means that I reinforce a behavior the dog does on his own. Luring means that I use food to get the dog to do the behavior. My “hint” (hand above nose) was a lure. Many dogs, especially young puppies, will offer a sit as they look up at you. Ash did that a few times before we started recording. Then he stopped. I lured to help him out and also keep him in the game. By holding the food just above his nose, I was hoping that as his nose went up, his butt would go down. Which is what happened. The thing with lures is that you want to fade the food quickly so that the food itself doesn’t become the cue.
Why toss the food? I give one reason in the clip, but if I think about it there are actually three and a half.
(1) I wanted to get additional reps. In order to sit, he has to be not sitting. Tossing food gets him up and moving. (That’s what I mean by “resetting” him.)
(2) Chasing food is fun for most dogs. Sitting gets old fast. So alternating sits with food chasing = more fun.
(2a) Not a conscious reason, but still important: As a trainer, when I see my dog having fun, I am positively reinforced and want to keep going!
(3) I wanted to see whether, on returning, he might sit on his own. Then I would know I could fade the lure. But he didn’t sit which is why I lured again. After a few more reps with the lure, I would want to check again to see if he’d offer sit on his own.
If you’re new to positive training, I hope I’ve offered a fuller explanation of what I was thinking as I was working with Ash. These aren’t all of the questions that can be asked, so please speak up (or ask another positive trainer) if there are more things you want to know. If you are an experienced positive trainer, all of this is fairly basic (and you’ve probably stopped reading at this point, anyway!). But thinking about why-I-did-X is a good way for me to remind myself that there is often more to positive training than meets the eye, and that handing someone a clicker and a bait bag might not immediately—or ever—translate into a love of positive training.
Last if any local friends are still reading (!) Ash, the puppy in the video, is unbelievably still available for adoption at Camp P in Stroudsburg. He’s listed as a lab mix, and could easily be the cover dog for an Orvis catalog. Srsly, he’s that handsome. And as you can see from the video, he is an eager learner. I suspect he’d be a wonderful partner for walking, hiking, or camping and for all kinds of dog sports.